Last week, Jennifer Weiner asked me how I’d tell the story of “Grace,” the twenty-two-year-old who went on the date from Hell with Aziz Ansari. I really did try, but the more I tried, the more confused I got.
The difference between fiction and reality is that fiction has to make sense. We tell each other stories about something that happened so that we can impose order on the event. That’s why the same event told by two different people can become two entirely different stories: the event was shaped by two different points of view. I should make it clear that I believe “Grace” was telling the truth in the way she related the events, and I believe Ansari’s apology and his explanation that he saw the events differently. I understand that real life comes at us fast and it’s hard to think straight under pressure; there have been any number of times when I’ve looked back at something and thought, Why didn’t I do something about that? Even so, I can’t take the events as listed and make them into a coherent narrative.
Part of that is because only half the story is here, “Grace’s” half. And part of it is that although we get “Grace’s” side of the story, she leaves a lot out. She says, “I did this, he did this,” but she doesn’t say why she did things, leaving it to the reader to figure out her motivations. If you leave it up to the reader to determine your character’s motivations, you’re handing over the most important part of characterization: what people do isn’t nearly as interesting as why they do it. And while I can cobble together a motivation for just about anything, I cannot figure out the motivation for the glaring hole in the center of “Grace’s” narrative: why she has no agency.
I don’t like speculating about real people, so we’re moving into fiction now, based on “Grace’s” Babe story. This story is about Greta and Andy.
My protagonist is Greta, who wants a great date with a smart celebrity who has the same vintage camera that she does. Terrific relationships have started with less, so why not? What she hopes for after that is what any human on a date probably wants: a fun evening, a good memory, maybe the start of a long term thing. (Again, this is my fiction, so that’s what Greta wants. No idea what “Grace” wanted.)
My antagonist is Andy, who wants a great date with a cute twenty-two-year-old who approached him to talk about the coincidence that they have the same vintage camera. She came to him, she temporarily ditched her date to do it, she gave him her number, so he translates that into “she wants what I want: sex.” Again, I have no idea what Ansari really wanted, but based on “Grace’s” description of the evening, his idea of a great date was sex.
So Greta wants a lovely, romantic evening that might be the start of something big, and Andy wants sex. They’re both hoping for a good time, their definition of “good time” just differs. Conflict!
The story takes place in three scenes: Greta meets Andy at his apartment, they go to a restaurant, they go back to his apartment. In the original story, “Grace” had other scenes–meeting Ansari at the party, getting ready and talking with her friends about how excited she was, texting them pictures of her outfit, etc. The problem with this in the fictional Greta’s story is that that’s back story, and back story kills. There is no conflict, no escalation, no character growth, it’s just information-the-author-thinks-the-reader-should-have. Plus Greta’s back story tells me nothing about her that’s interesting, except for the vintage camera and her excitement that was so great she told all her friends. If she’d been a little clearer about why she was so excited–she’s dating a celebrity? she’s found a guy who’s into vintage cameras, too? she’s going to get to pitch her script? I dunno–this could have been crucial, but as it is, it’s just set-up. So I’m starting Greta and Andy’s story at his apartment, based on the theory that the story starts when the protagonist and antagoninst meet, and their stable worlds are disrupted.
I’m not sure why Greta went to Andy’s apartment first. I don’t see it as indicative of anything in their characters or motivation, they had to meet someplace, and the setting contributes nothing to the story because nothing happens there: he’s polite, he gives her a glass of white wine, she’s annoyed because she prefers red, and then they leave for the restaurant. This is not worthy of story real estate, there’s no conflict, everything is going as expected except for the red wine (which makes her sound snowflakey), so there’s no real scene here.
I’m cutting it.
So now we’re at the restaurant, and it’s nice, and they’re both a little nervous because it’s a first date and they both have high expectations (She: I’m with a celebrity!, He: I’m going to have sex!), so that’s a great set-up for conflict. Reminder: Conflict is not always people stabbing each other with forks, it can be two perfectly nice people discovering that their motivations clash and trying to work it out.
So she sits down hoping for . . . .
Here’s where the missing info kneecaps me. I don’t know what she wants. My Greta just wants a nice date (bonus, with a celebrity), but she appears to be getting that. The only real conflict is that before she’s finished her last glass of wine, he hustles her out of the restaurant, evidently having been fantasizing hard over the entree and dessert. That’s good foreshadowing for what happens next, but a scene can’t just be foreshadowing, it has to have shape and form of its own. So either he becomes a problem for her earlier (in which case why does she go back to his apartment with him?) or I cut this scene.
I’m cutting this scene. (Cutting the scene means cutting the wine motif which has a beat in each scene, but since I have no idea what the wine means as a metaphor, it’s no great loss.)
So now this story is one scene, which I like. Focus. This one interaction will tell my reader everything about Greta and Andy.
Here’s what happens in “Grace’s” account of the real date:
They left the restaurant before she was ready. She doesn’t mention protesting this, so I’m assuming she went along with it to be polite.
When she got to his apartment, she complimented him on his countertops, so he told her to hop up, kissed her and groped her breast.
He tells her he’s going to get a condom, she says, “Chill,” he “briefly” gives her oral sex and asks for a return, which she gives him, also briefly.
The he repeatedly tries to put his fingers in her mouth and her vagina and keeps pointing at his penis. (Yes, she knows it’s down there.)
He repeatedly asks her where she wants him “to fuck her.” (Nowhere, ever.) She says possibly on their second date. He says, “if I pour you another glass of wine, is this a second date?” She goes to the bathroom.
When she comes out, she tells him she’s feeling pressured and he says he understands. Then he asks for oral sex.
You know, I was going to diagram the rest of this out, but bleah. So things gets worse, although not rapey–he follows her around but doesn’t try to trap her–and I’m mentally screaming, Get the hell out of there, he’s awful, and she finally gets out her phone to call a car and he insists on getting one for her, kissing her good-bye at the door “aggressively,” and then she cries in the hall.
I can extrapolate that Andy failed because there was no blood in his brain, but that just makes him a boring groper, a character cliche, unless I can somehow give him a reason for letting go of his rational self before she was ready to let go of hers. One possibility: He’s so used to groupies that he doesn’t realize she isn’t one; the lack of romance in his approach suggests that he thinks she thinks she’s there for sex. So his assumptions are the reason for his failure.
Greta is more difficult. I can extrapolate that she was excited to be dating a celebrity and got him confused with the guy he played on TV. Then as things get increasing creepy, she can rationalize them away in hopes that he’ll turn out to be that great guy. But is that enough to motivate oral sex she’s not really interested in giving (twice)? The trouble I’m having with this may be more about the differences in the way Greta and I view oral sex; she’s of a different generation and may think of it as just a way to stop him from hitting on her, while I tend to need know where that’s been and how long since it’s been tested. My narrative problem is, how long is Greta going to keep denying what’s happening even while she recognizes how unhappy she is before my reader gets fed up with her for being a polite victim?
And that pinpoints my problem with both the real story and the fictional narrative: The way this is being told, Greta has no agency. She seems helpless in the hands of a creeper who has disappointed her terribly and is now pushing sex on her. She demurs but she doesn’t demand he stop, she suffers but doesn’t leave. He continues to cluelessly creep, but when she finally decides to leave, he gets her a car so there seems to be no coercion, yet she presents as a victim. I’m not saying it’s her fault because she didn’t leave, I’m saying it doesn’t make sense that she didn’t leave. It’s not a coherent narrative without a motivation for her to stay, and she’s not an interesting protagonist because she’s so passive without a motivation to be passive. And then she tells everybody about the bad date she didn’t stop on a national website because . . . . Yeah, I don’t know what her motivation for that is, either. Revenge? A warning to other women not to go back to the apartments of drunk celebrities? An attempt to get some MeToo validation? I have no idea why she thought it was worthy of an essay unless that was her motivation in the first place, doing research for an article on “My Date With a Celebrity.”.
That would have been an interesting story, her expectations of the date as a subject for an essay, staying because she can’t believe it’s that bad, hoping to salvage her project, realizing that as awful as it is, it’s going to make a more exciting article with him as a creep. I just don’t like her much with that motivation. And I need a good motivation to give Greta agency, which means that it’s not going to be “Grace’s” story any more because she’s left so much blank space in her narrative, that I can make her anything I want. Like a predatory journalist. Or . . .
She’s a CIA agent investigating him for possibly selling secrets to the Russians. He’s a famous actor researching his next role by meeting with real Russian spies, which has led the CIA to think he’s really a Russian spy. She pursues him hard, so that he thinks she’s a love struck groupie/sure thing, but he turns her down because . . . yeah, he wouldn’t turn her down. He’s still a jerk out for sex, but at least she’s volunteering to be the object of his jerkdom.
So they’re both wrong about each other and what the evening is going to be about, and their attempts to drag each other into their own realities will set up the conflict, and they both have strong motivations for not resigning from the conflict. If it’s a short story, it’s one scene sequence in his apartment, told in alternating PoV scenes as the conflict escalates. Bonus: If I make him smart and not a mindless groper, I can make that funny. (There is nothing funny about the real date. Bleah.)
If it’s a novel, they’re going to get tangled up with the real Russian spy network somehow, maybe end up on the run from both the CIA and the Russians while they try to figure out what the hell happened. If it’s a romance novel, they fall in love. If it’s a suspense novel, they probably still fall in love, but if I’m writing this, she is not The Girl, he’s The Boy. In none of these stories does she give him oral sex in that first scene because reluctant oral sex is not romantic, erotic, or funny, so I’m out.
So here’s my fix for the “Grace” story: It needs Russian spies.